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Mary, Queen of Scots’ great escape


On the 2 May 1568 Mary, Queen of Scots escaped Lochleven castle, where she had been kept prisoner for almost eleven months, in a highly daring escapade. 

The background

Despite acceding to the Scottish throne at just six days old, Mary spent the majority of her childhood in France. In 1558 she married the Dauphin of France, and the following year briefly became the French queen consort when her husband ascended the throne as King Francis II. Tragically, he died just over a year later after succumbing to an ear infection.

Widowed, Mary returned to Scotland to be greeted by a complex and dangerous political situation she had little experience of. At first, the Roman Catholic queen ruled her Protestant subjects successfully and with moderation, but her marriage in 1565 to leading Catholic, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley initiated a tragic series of events which were made considerably worse by factious Scottish nobles – the marriage precipitated Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, to join with other Protestant lords in open rebellion and infuriated her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, who felt the union should not have gone ahead without her permission.

In addition, Darnley was growing ever more arrogant and petulant. Not content with his position as king consort, he demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would have made him a co-sovereign. Mary refused his request and the marriage became strained. He was also jealous of Mary’s friendship with her private secretary, David Rizzio and on 9 March 1566 Darnley, along with a group of conspirators, murdered Rizzio in front of a pregnant Mary at Holyrood Palace. 

The birth of a son, James, later that summer did nothing to improve the marriage and when Darnley was founded murdered at Kirk o’Field just outside Edinburgh on 10 February 1567 following an explosion, people suspected that Mary may have been involved in the assassination. By the end of February, however, top of the suspect list was James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell. Mary had become increasingly close to Bothwell, one of her advisors; he had helped to plan Mary’s escape from Holyroodhouse following Rizzio’s murder and he mustered an army to support the Queen as she rode back to Edinburgh.

Barely a few weeks after Darnley’s death, Bothwell intercepted Mary on her way back from visiting her infant son and took her to Dunbar Castle. It would be the last time she would ever see her child. Mary and Bothwell were married on 15 May at Holyrood according to Protestant rites. This third, final and disastrous marriage brought about her inevitable ruin as the Protestant Scots Lords rose in rebellion against her and Mary was forced to surrender at Carberry Hill on 15 June 1567. Bothwell was given safe passage from the field and driven into exile whilst crowds denounced Mary as an adulteress and murderer before she was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle and forced to abdicate in favour of her son.

Whilst at Lochleven Mary suffered a miscarriage, losing twins. Her first attempt to escape Lochleven, whilst disguised as a washerwoman, was thwarted when a boatman spotted her white hands beneath rags. However, as escapes go, her second attempt was rather more successful…


The following text is extracted from The Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots by Mickey Mayhew

The Great Escape

A second attempt at escape from Lochleven on 2 May 1568, which involved drugging half the island with hearty doses of wine whilst young Willie Douglas pegged all the boats to the shore bar one, was markedly more successful. Once more in disguise, Mary walked out of the gates of the castle in full view, in the midst of the May Day festivities that the young boy had arranged, with himself cast as the ‘Abbot of Unreason’. Dancing around the table in the great hall, he flung his handkerchief over the keys to the castle gates as Sir William Douglas dozed drunkenly beside them. Mary regained her freedom as a result of this highly daring escapade, having been on Lochleven for almost a year. George and Willie Douglas followed her to freedom and she was soon reunited with several of the noble lords who had held fast to her cause, and spirited away to the safety of the castle of Niddry. She enjoyed a little under a fortnight of her hard-won freedom before being beaten by herhalf-brother’s forces in battleat the village of Langside, just outside of Glasgow. Watching from a nearby hill as her men were cut down in an ambush organised by Kirkcaldy of Grange, not to mention possible treachery and dissent within her own ranks, Mary for once lost her legendary bottle and broke into a cross-country flight that finally ended up in Dundrennan Abbey near the Solway Firth. From there, despite the protestations of the lord and nobles who had scarpered with her, she made the decision to cross into England and throw herself on her cousin Elizabeth’s mercy; this being the same Elizabeth who had expressed outrage at the way Mary had been manhandled by her nobles whilst at the same time engaging in a bidding war with Catherine de Medici to buy Mary’s famous string of black pearls – Elizabeth won.

The small party comprising about fifteen or sixteen various Scottish lords and attendants, not to mention Mary herself, commandeered a small fishing boat from the commendator of the former Cistercian monastery, Edward Maxwell of Terregles. After much to-ing and fro-ing in regards to the fraught nature of her plan – the lords were far more of a mind that Mary should seek help from France – they set sail from the mouth of the Abbey Burnfoot, where the monks had once shipped out wool and other agricultural necessities to Europe. In order to get to England the party had to cross the Solway Firth, a journey that took them a little over four hours. During the crossing Mary apparently had a premonition of the awful fate that awaited her in England and demanded that the boat be turned so that they could make for France instead, but by that time powerful winds had taken hold of them and she was unable to escape her date with destiny.

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